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Knowledge for Money’s Sake

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The Modern Language Association of America has finished its 128th annual convention. This year, ten thousand delegates descended on three sprawling, super-heated and mall-lined hotels in Boston. Well-established fears – the steady corporatisation of the academy, the encroachment of market forces on academic publishing, the shameful ways in which early career academics are treated  – had had their influence on most of the papers I heard. Many of the panels were about how to sell yourself as a graduate student, or find a way into the increasingly closed shop of a tenure-track academic career, or avoid it altogether. There were panels on ‘Myth-busting the Job Search’ and ‘Marketing Your PhD in Literature and Languages’. At a panel on ‘Humanisms Old and New’ the medievalist James Simpson said we were saddled with ‘a legacy of 15th-century philological humanism’ that was outdated. If we tried to justify the humanities as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, he said, ‘we’re going to lose.’ 

With the humanities job market in seemingly terminal decline, most teaching in the US nowadays is done by adjunct teachers on temporary contracts, with little employment protection. In the UK, junior academic jobs are being treated like internships. Last year, UCL advertised for an unpaid sixth-month researcher post, and the government announced that 2011 was the last year in which any master’s courses would be centrally funded.

The MLA jobs tumblr lampoons the tendency of US institutions to make increasingly impossible demands of those hires they do make (‘The person hired to this position will be responsible for covering all events of cultural significance in the West from 600 CE to 1800 CE . . . Candidate should have secondary interests in sub-colonial literature post-1995. Publications in modern Japanese architecture a plus’), or to seek teachers of meaninglessly trendy subjects (‘The College on the Hill seeks tenure-track Assistant Professor of Popular Culture. Join a department renowned for its innovative classes in Elvis Studies, The Poetics of Car Crashes, Cerealboxology, and the Geography of Toothbrushing’).

But these adverts don’t look so satirical when compared to the jobs that are really out there. One recently advertised position in the official MLA job list specified that ‘all faculty are required to abide by the university’s honour code and dress and grooming standards. Preference is given to qualified members in good standing of the affiliated church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’

On the penultimate day of the convention, the outgoing MLA president, Michael Bérubé, gave an address depressingly titled ‘How We Got Here’. He announced that the MLA were calling for adjunct professors to be paid a ‘living wage’ of $7000 per course. A website, the Adjunct Project, has been set up to record the working conditions of contingent faculty members. But for many the future looks bleak, and it might be easier just to give up. There’s a website for that too.

Comments on “Knowledge for Money’s Sake”

  1. klhoughton says:

    “The Poetics of Car Crashes”

    Finally! A course in James Graham Ballard that doesn’t have to concentrate on mediocre Steven Spielberg movies!

  2. Seth Edenbaum says:

    “At a panel on ‘Humanisms Old and New’ the medievalist James Simpson said we were saddled with ‘a legacy of 15th-century philological humanism’ that was outdated.”

    He would say that wouldn’t he?

    He’s a medievalist.

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